Where we live, the air is thin, although most days we are able to breathe unassisted. After a year and a half, our lungs have adapted. I like to think we’ve earned it. We were brave enough to leave, while others chose to ignore the warning signs. Cats and dogs scratching at the door, and if you opened it a crack they sprang out, none of them ever returned. Small children became uncharacteristically listless. And the leaves went brown early that year. There were no fall colors. Everything was green as usual that summer, then brown, then gone.
I heard the leaves never grew back.
Up here, the air is thin. But down there, it is finite. A non-renewable resource.
Esme is on a call when I arrive at the Center, hunched over her desk with her back to me. She talks slowly, as if the caller is having a hard time understanding her.
“Okay, Mr. Banister, what’s your plan for the day? Right, those dandelions aren’t going to pull themselves up. That should keep you busy for awhile. You know, for me, gardening is always a soothing experience. Maybe it is for you too. Okay, call us if you need us. You’re very welcome.”
Esme hangs up and turns to me. Her gray hair stands up around her face, giving her the look of a gentle, slightly surprised lion.
“That’s it for me, Kimmie,” she says, heaving herself out of her chair. “It’s all yours.”
“Anything I need to know?”
A vacant look passes over her as she tries to remember. Even if something upsetting happened at the beginning of her shift, by now she’s soothed herself by putting Mr. Banister back to rights. He’s one of our regulars. We can always count on him to be right again, ever since we convinced him of his garden, his Consolation Story. Esme and I have kept up with Mr. Banister for over a year, as if we can count on him not to disappear.
“You’ll probably hear from Mr. Banister again today. You know what to do.”
“Yes,” I say as I arrange the usual on my desk. My keys at my right hand in case I need to run, my personal cell phone next to them, on vibrate, in case Terese calls. She won’t call, but I like to imagine her calling. I flip over the daily quotable calendar Terese gave me on my last birthday. She made it herself, three-hundred sixty-five days of quotes. I made a fuss about how much it meant to me.
It’s so you have something to think about, Mom, other than people dying, Terese said. She hated my job, and she refused to use the word we were supposed to use, disappear. You’d think she would be proud of me for giving people hope. Esme promised that Terese would be grateful when she got older. She’d realize how hard I had worked to keep us safe and alive. Esme said: “Wait until she’s twenty-four, twenty-five.”
Now when it comes to Terese, Esme keeps her mouth shut.
Today’s quote is from George MacDonald: “To be trusted is a greater compliment than to be loved.”
My hands look like someone else’s hands, as if they’re about a mile away. I count my breath. Inhale four, exhale four.
That’s one of the first things they taught us here--how to remain calm.
As of today, it’s been exactly three weeks that Terese has been gone.
Esme slings her bag over her shoulder, but she’s not leaving yet. She’s waiting for me to say something. What’s the point? I don’t have any news. She’s off the clock, and I’m on. We used to be close. Now her sympathy is a clutch around my throat.
I fold my hands behind my back. “How are you, Esme?”
“Oh, you know,” she says. “The usual. It’s all downhill.” She taps the desk with her pen, and I stretch my lips across my face. It’s palpable, how much she wants to comfort me. But I have work to take over, so she holds back.
“Okay, sweetheart,” she says. “I’m off for my beauty sleep. You take care of yourself. And Mr. Banister.”
Never take anything personally. That’s what they taught us the first day of our training. Utilize the checklist. Stay within protocol. I’ve been working at the Center for over a year, and no one has actually disappeared while on the phone with me. Even though Esme reminds me, statistically speaking, it’s only a matter of time.
I used to like the idea of being part of an invisible yet impenetrable barrier. I want to feel that way again. It’s not easy, being up here. The geography itself is enough to make anyone claustrophobic. Down there, they have all the space in the world. Not that space does them any good.
Esme’s engine hums from the parking lot. From the window above my desk, there’s a view of the red rocks. The windows are deeply tinted, always closed. You wouldn’t want to burn a cornea. But I can still see the way the light plays on the rocks, the shifting stripes of light and shadow. I stare out the window, at a trail that starts on flat land and winds its way up into the rocks. Terese was obsessed with these trails when we first got here. She liked to challenge herself by exploring in the altitude, and I figured this was just part of her adaptation, so I never said a word against it. I just let her go. I let her go.
Sometimes I think I see her out there even now, out of the corner of my eye, her protective gear glinting in the light, her face obscured by the dark glasses that make her look more like an insect than a girl.
Of course, I know she’s not really there. I understand how the mind craves hope, how easy it is to succumb to illusion.
The phone rings just when I think I might get to some of my paperwork.
The voice on the line sounds like it belongs to a ten-year-old, but she says she’s fifteen, and I believe her.
I use the tone that I save for the young ones, patient yet firm.
“This is Kimmie. How are you doing today?”
The girl starts crying immediately. That’s not unusual. For close to a minute I stare out the window and listen to her, nothing to see but red rock and sky. There are no birds here, no rabbits or squirrels or groundhogs.
I miss the animals. I practice my breathing.
Terese said this work changed me, that I should get out. She acted like there was something wrong with the fact that I don’t cry anymore. I told her it didn’t matter. Everything we do changes us; our cells are constantly turning over. None of us are made of the same stuff over time.
I don’t want your cells to turn over like this, she said. She stood in the corner of the little room they assigned to us, the one she called our cell. Her hair, which she’d never let me cut, fell across her eyes. But then she let me hug her. It might have been the last time I hugged her, now that I think about it. And I don’t really want to think about it---the sweet, damp smell of her scalp, just a shade deeper from the way it smelled when she was a baby; her bones, the rungs of her ribcage, all pressed to me like a scaffolding. This place turned her into nothing but tendon and bone.
The girl cries and I breathe. Her sobs stretch out, and I know from experience she’ll be ready to talk soon.
“How are you?” I say. The first month I worked here I had to choke back the word “honey”, especially with the young ones. We’re not supposed to use endearments. I still think it though.
How are you, honey? I think. Honey. Sweetheart. Dear.
“How are you?”
Her breath quickens. I imagine it in a pattern of shale, or fern.
“Are you alone?” I ask.
“No,” she says. “I live with my boyfriend.”
She interrupts. “I haven’t seen him since yesterday.”
“And you think he might not come back,” I say.
“I don’t know,” she says. “He just--” There’s a pause, and she sighs. “He’s just so mean sometimes.”
I’ve heard this before. They get scared down there. Then it hardens into meanness. It’s hard to love when you’re wondering how much longer you have, and who will be the first to go.
That’s why it’s so important, what we do. There is power in consolation. We are helpers. Our work is a mercy.
“What about food?” I ask. “Are you eating?”
“Yeah,” she says, her voice a little lighter. “We ate through our canned goods, about two weeks ago. But we still have a vegetable garden.”
This is my way in. I keep my voice steady and low as I ask her about the garden.
She tells me about arbors weighted with grapes; bean vines wound around corn. She tells me about wading in edible greens up to her ankles; obedient hens that come when called; pastel-colored eggs; the cream and flank of her cows.
This is a job well done. I wonder which one of my colleagues initiated her story.
Then she stops herself, and says: “I don’t want to die, you know.”
“You have everything you need to survive. There’s no reason to worry about dying.”
“Yeah,” she says. She sounds tired. “I’m just really ready for this to be over.”
She doesn’t say goodbye.
I know she wants more from me, but this is all I have to give.
They say the callers are the onslaught, and we are the dam. If the mass of them followed us up to where we are now, we would all die. We tell them what they need to hear to stay put, to wait for a normalcy that we are certain will never return.
Or, maybe Terese was right. We tell them what they need to hear in order for them to die.
Unidentified caller - adolescent. I type in the prescribed box. Denies the absence of food. Consolation Story intact.
What they left out of the equation was the cost of our loneliness, how it grated on us, how it wore us down.
Terese and I got out before the worst of it happened, but sometimes the visions break through to me, as if someone else’s memory were mixed up with my imagination.
Here’s what I see sometimes: fire streaks across the sky, then a great erasure, a deafening fog.
The next call comes before I finish my notes. It’s Mr. Banister.
“Is this Kimmie?” he says. There’s a whiny tone in his voice. I have a feeling he’s going to keep me on the phone.
“Good morning, Mr. Banister. How are you?”
“Esme got off the phone so fast,” he says. “Between you and me, there’s something going on with her.”
“What do you mean?”
“You know how it is with Esme,” he says, as if Esme were our mutual friend. “She always wants to talk about gardening. But you know what happened this morning?”
I keep a spare cardigan draped over the back of my chair for the days when I get the chills.
“I went into the garden,” he says. “Esme said, you know, she said--”
There’s a pressured quality to his speech. I fear he may be experiencing what we call a Breakthrough. Funny how that term, Breakthrough, used to mean a great discovery. Now it’s the sounding of an alarm.
In a way, that’s what happened to Terese. My own daughter. Esme said I was lucky to keep my job with my daughter going off the deep end like that. What did that say about me, after all? Esme felt bad after she said this. I could tell by the way she chewed the inside of her lip.
I open my file drawer.
“What did Esme say, Mr. Banister?”
“She said to get out there and dig up some dandelions.” He laughs, a short, sharp bark. “Now let me ask you something. Do you know how long it’s been since I saw a dandelion?”
I pull an index card from my files. I’m cold, even with my cardigan. Esme missed some cues this morning. She didn’t realize how close Mr. Banister was to a Breakthrough.
“Dandelion coffee,” says Mr. Banister. “Dandelion wine.” He pauses, makes a snorting sound like he’s dredging the bottom of his throat. “I used to pull up dandelion leaves and eat them like spinach,” he says. “When it first happened. That was all I had left. I thought, thank God for dandelions. Stubborn little fuckers. Dandelion chains. Dandelion crowns. And don’t you tell me nothing happened, by the way, because I know.”
I’m not supposed to let him go on like this.
“Dandelion leaves,” he says. “They’re bitter, you know, but not bad. The flowers taste like cotton, but they’re a good source of--” He’s fumbling. “Vitamin C, I guess.”
I put the card on my desk.
Situation: The subject has separated from their Consolation Story.
Distract the subject with pre-collapse memory. STAY POSITIVE. Pro-tip: the natural world is a soothing memory for all our callers, as is the memory of a child.
Redirect all conversation to the subject’s Consolation Story. Persistence is key!
Use cognitive-behavioral techniques to reframe the subject’s wish to escape their chosen reality. Remember, EACH CALLER HAD THE CHANCE TO ESCAPE. Do not accept guilt. This is your most common occupational hazard.
If all else fails, remind callers that, at this time, there is greater risk in an attempt to breach the atmosphere than there is in staying below.
They chose the illusion of denial, so we give it to them.
This is not something I would ever say out loud. Well, I would say it to Esme. I said it a thousand times to Terese, but I would never say it on a call.
The last time I said it to Terese, she shoved me, hard, pushed her hands against my chest. She knocked the wind out of me. I fell back onto my bed. I should have shoved her back. I should have slapped her. I should have known that soon, she would be gone.
I believe in what I do.
Distract the subject with pre-collapse memory.
“Mr. Banister,” I say. “Do you remember the constellations, the stars?”
He’s silent. Then: “Of course I remember the constellations. But we were talking about dandelions.”
“Mr. Banister,” I say. “Listen to me. What do you remember?”
He clears his throat. “Sometimes the Milky Way was so bright, so close, I thought I could reach it with a ladder.”
“Good,” I say. “I remember that too.” And I do remember the brightness, a salt-shake of stars across the sky.
“Sometimes it was hard to see,” he says. “The fog came. I couldn’t find anyone in the fucking fog.”
“Think back further. What do you remember about the stars?”
“I don’t know,” he says. He’s drifting. I twist the phone cord around my fingers, stand and lean my elbows on my desk.
By his silence, I know that he’s remembering.
“One time,” he says. “One time me and my son--”
Perfect. Typically they stay on track once they find the memory of a child. It’s like a sedative.
“Me and my son, we went out to see the meteor shower. He must have been about five years old. I took him out to the desert.”
He coughs heavily, a wet, choking sound. “The desert,” he says. “Isn’t that something. If I could have seen what was coming, I never would have taken my kid out there.”
“Okay, Mr. Banister,” I say. “But what about the meteor shower?”
“Yeah,” he says. “Well, my kid was born under a meteor shower, two weeks early, and his mother always said, she said to me, if you hadn’t woken me up to see the damn shooting stars that baby probably would’ve stayed in a lot longer.” He laughs, then goes on. “But that made it special for my kid, I mean, how many kids get to say they were born under a shooting star?
“So I would take him out every year on his birthday to see if we could catch a glimpse of the meteor shower. Usually the poor kid would fall asleep, and I would have to wake him up again, and then we’d barely see anything anyway. Maybe I should have let the kid sleep. I don’t know, but it seemed like the thing to do. A father and son tradition.
“On his fifth birthday, I took him out to the desert. Left his mother at home, you know, she was expecting again, actually, didn’t want to make the drive. Christ, I can’t believe we thought it was a good idea to have another baby.”
Despite myself, I see a flash of Mr. Banister’s baby. A dried little husk. They told us babies were the first to go. This was a great deterrent, when we first arrived here, back when many of us were still homesick.
“We left a little later than I meant to,” says Mr. Banister, “and I’m driving, looking out the windshield, hardly any other cars on the road. On either side of me these crazy trees, these Joshua trees, remember those? They’re standing up on the side of the road. They looked like monsters, waving their damn arms. Kinda spooky, is what I’m trying to say. And I look in my rearview mirror and there’s my kid. He’s asleep, he’s got his head slumped over. I don’t know if you have a kid, but that’s what they do, used to make me crazy because it looks like the damn shoulder belt is gonna take the kid’s head off, you know what I mean? But it doesn’t.”
“It doesn’t,” I repeat to him. Always reflect a statement that assumes a sense of safety. “It doesn’t.”
“Yeah, so there I am, driving through the middle of nowhere, the desert, these crazy trees look like they’re grabbing for us on either side, and my kid in the backseat with his head just about cut off.”
I stand up straight. I feel like we’re coming to the end of something.
“And then,” he says, and again, makes that dredging sound in his throat. “This big fire ball comes careening across the sky, you know? Looks like it’s right in front of my car.”
A dry-heave scrapes out of him.
“But it wasn’t one of our shooting stars,” he says. His voice is raspy. I can barely hear him. “I thought I was going to die.”
I open my drawer, rifle through my files. The situation is changing. I need a new protocol.
He’s wheezing, like the whiny drone of a mosquito. I don’t know exactly where he is down below--we never do--but it’s clear he’s not getting enough oxygen.
“But I wasn’t going to die,” he says, panting, and I feel my own pulse quicken, the blood thudding against my temples.
There is no protocol for the disappearing. There’s no need for protocol once a caller is gone.
But what about us--what about me? The one left holding the silence at the end of the call?
“I was scared, Kimmie,” says Mr. Banister. “I didn’t know what to do. I got out of the car. I opened the back door, I took my son out of his goddamn car seat.”
“You didn’t know, Mr. Banister,” I said. “None of us knew about the immediate impact on children’s lungs.”
“I just wanted to hold him,” he says. He coughs in a terrible way, a way I’ve never heard before. Then he says, whispering: “Oh, Kimmie, do you know where your children are? I do. I know where my kid is, because I’m the one who put him there. He’s with the fucking dandelions. He’s in the goddamn ground.”
What’s done is done. Some stayed while the fog rolled over us and the cold settled in. They still believed in seasons, in dependable impermanence, like the phases of the moon. Nothing lasts forever, they said. There used to be all kinds of inanity printed on the mundane surfaces of our lives--coffee mugs, plaques, posters, pens. To all things, there is a season. Most people decided we were going through a phase. A bad phase, sure, but nothing permanent. Nothing that wouldn’t turn itself around.
Not me. Back then they called me paranoid, but I was one of the few who was paying attention.
When it was time to leave, Terese left the house while I packed our backpacks and duffle bags. She went to a friend’s house for the night, told me she could stay there as long as she wanted. Told me I could leave without her.
What do you do? Do you save your own life, even if it means leaving behind a daughter?
I stayed up all night with my indecision. It was just the two of us, Terese and I. Even the cats had gone. I watched the moon from my kitchen window that night, a full moon, creeping across the sky. I was sick to think about leaving without Terese. But by the time the moon turned white and the sun came up I knew that with or without her, I’d be gone.
To stay would be to feign ignorance. But to leave without Terese, what did that make me?
Terese came home at the last minute. She looked like she hadn’t slept either, her eyes puffy from crying. I’d packed her bag and placed it with mine on the kitchen table. She didn’t say anything, just slung it over her shoulder.
I turned the lights off. She filled up the cat bowl.
“Just in case,” she said, even though the cats hadn’t come home for weeks, even though the last time she’d filled it, the cockroaches were swarming within the hour.
How little oxygen can a person take in, and still breathe?
I sand myself away at the Center, will my thoughts and feelings to disappear, all pushed under in service of caring for the ones we left behind.
Up here, a number of our young people have gone missing over the past three months.
Terese is not the only one. Rumor has it there’s a network of them. Rumor has it they fancy themselves heroes.
Terese said, There’s more than one way to help people. There’s the sick way, Mom, she said. That’s you.
They say that a person who tries to leave asphyxiates immediately upon breaching the atmosphere. There’s no going back once the lungs have adjusted.
There’s a no-go zone approaching the border that’s as long as a football field. They don’t want us to see the signs of escape, or what’s left of them. They leave it to the imagination. Who knows, maybe the warnings we give ourselves are worse than the reality.
No-go. That’s where Terese has gone.
Esme returns for her shift at sunset. There’s a pink glow rising over the jaggedness that we make do with in place of a horizon.
“Did Mr. Banister call again?” Esme asks me.
I shake my head. I do her a mercy.
“I guess that’s good,” says Esme. “I was worried about Mr. Banister.”
I pull my bag out from under my desk, shove my phone and my keys into my pockets.
“Esme,” I say. “You’re the one always telling me not to take it home.”
“I know,” she says. “Don’t worry, honey. I slept. I did. Well, a little. But sometimes, they come into your dreams regardless.”
The air outside is crisp and dry. The temperature has dropped so much I feel myself clenching, hardening, even zipped into my gear.
The room I used to share with Terese feels so empty now. She scavenged our cabinets before she left. She took cans of crushed tomatoes, tuna fish, mandarin oranges in syrup, unopened canisters of oxygen, a package of plastic spoons.
I imagine the glint of her gear through the fog. She’s kneeling over a body. She’s spooning fruit flesh into someone’s mouth from a tin can. She’s cut her hair off so that no one can grab her from behind.
I remember what it was like when we first got here, the months it took us to adjust to the altitude -- headaches, nausea, the feeling that walking a few yards was like running a mile.
It’s funny to be so high above everything and still feel like you’re underwater. I would say I’ve adjusted, for the most part. I would say I’ve learned that I can adjust to anything, given time.
Melissa Benton Barker's fiction appears or is forthcoming in Queen Mob's Teahouse, Peach Magazine, Vestal Review, Moon City Review, and elsewhere. She has been nominated for Best of the Net and the Pushcart Prize. She lives in Ohio with her family.